Friday, May 9, 2014

Dog Will Hunt: Tobe Hooper's THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2

There is something downright heroic about Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. Almost three decades after its initial release, Hooper’s daring follow-up to one of the most iconic American Independent films ever made can now be viewed as one of the bravest, most unconventional and most confrontational works of the eighties. A wildly subversive blood-soaked black comedy that lays to waste the conservative landscape of the Reagan fueled era, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is a fully loaded work fueled by the visions of a combative and iconoclastic filmmaker, with something to prove, and an undervalued writer looking to chop away at what had become of the American dream. Tobe Hooper should have been riding high by the mid-eighties. After all he had just achieved the biggest commercial and critical success of his career just a few years earlier with 1982’s Poltergeist but that success had been undercut by widespread rumors that it was more producer Steven Spielberg’s work than Hoopers. Struggling to regain his footing Hooper delivered two high-profile failures, that have since become fan favorites, Lifeforce (1985) and Invaders from Mars (1986) before he finally decided it was time to revisit the legendary film that had put him on the map in the first place. The key to understanding The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 in relation to its more acclaimed predecessor is to look at the very different times in which they were made. Even though just over a decade separated Hooper’s films the cinematic and social landscape had changed dramatically between 1974 and 1986. The audiences that had flocked to the first Chainsaw were still reeling from Watergate, Vietnam and the crushing realization that the sixties were indeed over. In contrast by the mid-eighties it was commerce and consumption that was on most Americans minds and film audiences were no longer interested in supporting the paranoid fueled individualistic works of the seventies. For a nonconformist like Tobe Hooper, this must have been a most bitter pill to swallow. The man who had received worldwide acclaim just a couple of years before the premiere of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, for his award winning screenplay for Wim Wenders’ mesmerizing art-house classic Paris, Texas (1984) might have seemed an odd-choice for Hooper’s misunderstood sequel, but renegade L.M. Kit Carson was the absolute perfect pick. Like Hooper, Carson hailed from Texas and, like Hooper, he had come of age in the liberal freewheeling era of the seventies. The two were actually a match made in heaven (or hell, depending on your point of view). Art-house meets the Grindhouse…and, as driven by Carson’s words and Hooper’s direction, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 would indeed turn out to the kind of oddball avant-garde exploitation film that few creative minds could even hope to concoct. Of course they had to go through hell to get their peculiar vision on the screen; battling every step of the way with a company who pulled the financial rug out from their feet before the cameras had even rolled. The entire behind the scenes struggles and turmoil are documented on Arrow’s astonishing new limited edition box-set dedicated to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. Like many of cinema’s great films, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is a compromised work but Hooper and his tireless crew worked through the compromises and delivered just the kind of searing and unhinged picture they promised.
The majority of sequels we see today crowding our local corporate owned megaplexes are essentially just remakes or retreads of the films that they are following. It has kind of become the norm to accept this and it is that attitude that still makes The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 feel so downright revolutionary. Audiences expecting the chilling coldness of the first film will be shocked by the anarchic humor on display in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. It is an extremely funny film, thanks mostly to Jones multi-layered script and the demonic performances of both Dennis Hopper and especially Bill Moseley. Far from being just a ferociously funny and gory freak show though, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 also works as a frenetic fright film, even though it wisely never attempts to reach the terrifying highs of its predecessor. If there is a clear thematic connection between the first Chainsaw and the second it can be found in Hooper’s decision to once again find a strong leading lady to guide the final act. Just as Marilyn Burns’ petrifying turn in the original helped give that extraordinary film the heart and soul it has the vastly underrated Caroline Williams, as the feisty D.J. Stretch, does the same for Hooper’s unexpected sequel. Williams is terrific in the film and gives a visceral, and at times oddly moving, performance that is the equal of Burns more well-known work.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 was slapped with an X rating when it his theaters in 1986 due to its violent content and generally chaotic nature. Cannon films had no idea what to do with it and both critical and fan reaction was wildly mixed. The film would quickly become a fan favorite once it hit video and by the time MGM released their own special edition DVD a decade or so ago it had become a bona-fide cult classic to many, although it has never garnered the same amount of acclaim and attention that the first film has. Arrow’s new collection is tremendous and it ports over all of the excellent material from MGM’s disc. There is new content as well including an excellent retrospective documentary featuring “Still Feelin’ the Buzz” and, best of all, a bonus disc entitled The Early Films of Tobe Hooper, which features 2 incredibly rare late sixties works from the man (The Heisters and Eggshells) with an additional commentary and a fascinating interview. It is a truly terrific collection dedicated to a very valuable film and filmmaker. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 will never be granted the classic status of its more famous parent and, perhaps, that is fitting since the film was a bit like the unruly child few wanted. Hooper’s ferocious follow-up film had the misfortune (or perhaps fortune) to land in the cinematic dustbin that was American film in 1986 and many just won’t be able to separate it from a period when most of the renegade filmmakers of the seventies had either called it quits or sold out completely. Tobe Hooper would never again attempt to make something as wildly ambitious or challenging as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 but, ultimately, he didn’t have to because he had already given American cinema not one but two of its most defining films. Jeremy Richey, 2014


jimerado said...

Hey Jeremy, I am so glad you mentioned this! I had no idea that a new edition of TCM 2 was out!
I agree, this was a great film.... not deserving of the legendary status given to the original, but without a doubt worthy of much more than it receives!
And, like you suggested... it is always interesting to watch a film with the era it was made in mind. TCM 2 is great 80s horror/comedy.

James M. Tate said...

were people really "reeling from watergate"? i hear this a lot, but when i talk to people from that time, it seems they cared more about drugs than politics. plus, they were glad nixon was out, and watergate made them quite happy.